(CN) — Perhaps, the $850 toilet brush will be the downfall of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the space of a week, Russia has been plunged into a political storm that saw roughly 100,000 Russians across the nation take to the streets over the weekend in the biggest protests in years.
By Monday, more than 3,700 arrests had been made and a perfect storm may be gathering on the presidency of Vladimir Putin who is at risk of seeing his luster get blown away after two decades in power.
The storm was set off a week ago when Alexei Navalny, the 44-year-old opposition figure allegedly poisoned by Russian intelligence services last year, returned to Moscow after receiving treatment in Germany. His daring return set in motion events that pose a major challenge to Putin.
When Navalny's airplane – packed with journalists – landed at a Moscow airport on Jan. 17, he was greeted by Russian police at the passport checkpoint. Next, with cameras rolling, the world watched Navalny say goodbye to his wife and be led away by police. He was arrested on dubious charges of missing parole hearings related to a suspended sentence for an embezzlement conviction deemed bogus by many.
What came next, though, truly got the storm started: Two days after he was jailed, Navalny and his team of supporters released a damning two-hour video accusing Putin of becoming “the world's richest man” through three decades of corruption that began with his service as a KGB agent in Dresden shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union. Within days, the video on YouTube – accompanied by English subtitles – had been viewed about 20 million times. By Monday, it had been clicked on more than 87 million times.
Navalny rose to fame as Putin's fiercest critic after years of exposing corruption inside the highest levels of Russian government and business circles. But this new expose is his most explosive yet: In it, he attacks Putin with ferocity.
Most damaging are extraordinary details Navalny and his team have dug up about a $1.35 billion palace and estate Putin is allegedly building for himself on the Black Sea. One of those details is an accusation that Putin's “new Versailles” comes with a luxury $850 Italian-made toilet brush. During protests on Saturday, demonstrators holding aloft toilet brushes became a powerful symbol.
“I really want to understand how an ordinary Soviet officer turned into a madman who is obsessed with money and luxury and literally ready to destroy the country and kill for the sake of his chests of gold,” Navalny says in the video, which was shot in part when the opposition leader was in Germany getting treatment for his poisoning by a Soviet-era nerve agent.
The video shows Navalny sitting outside a building where a young Putin resided during his time in Dresden. The expose then chronicles how various friends and associates Putin met along his road from KGB agent in Dresden to corrupt middleman in the office of the St. Petersburg's mayor to Russian president are now among the richest people in Russia and commanding many of its largest enterprises – oil and gas companies, banks and construction empires.
“A gang of bribe takers and crooks from the St. Petersburg mayor's office seized all key posts and declared themselves brilliant managers and saviors of Russia,” Navalny says.
After tracing Putin's pathways through government and corruption, Navalny introduces what he sees as Putin's crowning achievement: The $1.35 billion palace allegedly built with public money and bribes.
Navalny likens Putin to Louis XIV, France's “Sun King” who resided in opulence and decadence in the Versailles palace and whose extravagance brought France to its knees in the 18th century.